There are some important, thought-provoking pictures worth seeing at SXSW Film this year, from a documentary on Osama Bin Laden's former bodyguard (The Oath) to the tale of a Scottish stand-up comedian whose past tragically becomes part of his act (Crying With Laughter). Last night, however, the thought that most provoked me was: if outnumbered by armed henchmen, how could one possibly overtake them with nothing but a stalk of celery from a nearby trash bin? The answer, of course, is waiting in MacGruber.
Saturday Night Live skits that get the Hollywood treatment (The Ladies Man, Superstar, Night at the Roxbury, Coneheads, and let's not forget It's Pat) have been, with just a few exceptions, critical and box office disasters. Stuart Saves His Family, for instance, cost $15 million to make. It grossed under a million, and has a 29 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes. If you've ever tried watching it, you understand. Blame Wayne's World, which grossed six times its budget and led to the foolish trend of taking two-minute sketches (some of which weren't terribly funny in the first place) and turning them into two-hour films.
It's been so bad, in fact, that it has been a full ten years since an SNL skit was made into a movie. (The last was Ladies Man, from 2000.) Fortunately, someone decided that despite the history it was time to get back on that horse, mullet wig in hand.
Part homage, part spoof of some classic action films from the '80s (Rambo III, Top Gun, Die Hard, the Lethal Weapon series), MacGruber avoids the pitfalls of its predecessors by deciding to not merely recycle the punchlines of a skit but instead expand on the character behind it. MacGruber is a man whose preoccupation in the past with alcoholism, fear of aging, racism, and the crash of the stock market prevented him from defusing ticking bombs. Now there is a supervillian to contend with (Val Kilmer, going all-in), a dead wife, and an obsession with a removable car stereo. But instead of a string of time bomb scenarios like in the skit, we get a series of clever action sequences (and some classic sex scenes) to move things along.
The director, Jorma Taccone, has been an SNL writer for five years, and is one-third of The Lonely Island, the group behind the show's digital shorts series, which constitute some of SNL's best work as of late (Lazy Sunday, Jizz in My Pants, and Dick in a Box all come to mind). With the talent and intensity of Will Forte as MacGruber (arguably SNL's best performer as of late), both the laughs and the action deliver.
Prognosticating MacGruber's wild success would be just as foolish as greenlighting Ladies Man II, and it's important to remember the effect that a premiere can have on your perception of a film. But it's certainly the best SNL skit movie since Wayne's World, and arguably the best action-comedy since Beverly Hills Cop. Expect to see a lot of guys (and ladies) in mullets and down vests come Halloween.